Sunday, 30 May 2010

Forbidden topics

One intractable debating point in science is the question of whether some things should *not* be researched.

And indeed, there can be very few people who don't have some topic or another which they would prefer not to be researched - although the specific topic varies widely, and indeed diverges - and the method by which research should be discouraged or prevented is also variable.

So that the people who believe that research should not be done on human embryos or human stem cells are likely to be different from the people who believe that research should not be done on chemical weapons or genetically-modified crops.

The reason for prohibited topics of research is that science is not, ever, the primary value system; and therefore science is inevitably subordinated to whatever *is* the primary value system. For most of human history the primary value system would have been religion - nowadays it might be politics.

And by 'value system' is not meant (as some people imagine) merely a moral or ethical system - but the whole system of 'goods', the positive versus negative evaluations - or what may be called transcendental values - virtue is one, beauty another, truth another and wholeness or unity is yet another possible 'good'.

So presumably, what gets done in science ought to reflect in some specific way, that which is good in some general way.

But does it? Of course not!

The whole motivational system of science is broken, there is no overall moral or ethical system except that the consensus of the powerful scientists is always right. In science, the consensus that matters is that of the peer review cartel of dominant scientists – since peer review controls scientific evaluation.

Scientists’ choice of topic and methods of work now passively reflect consensus; and the consensus is always changing, consensus has no direction, but still consensus is always right.

In other words, there is no concept of the good in modern science - since consensus is simply a word for an arbitrary and shifting outcome of social interplay among those with power to enforce their views. In other words, consensus is peer review, and peer review is consensus.

(Those who contrast science with consensus are therefore mistaken when it comes to modern science – although of course real science is *in a sense* the opposite of consensus.)

There is no concept of the good as a cohesive system located anywhere in the motivational system of science. There is therefore no responsibility.

Instead of ‘the good’ – an eternal ideal - there is an ethic of obedience to whatever is the outcome of undirected social interplay – even (or especially) when this outcome is arbitrary and ever-changing.

The advocacy of peer review as a gold standard is precisely this: that scientists must submit - swiftly, willingly, happily! - to the outcome of peer review, and that the outcome of peer review is intrinsically valid.

Even though peer review is unpreditable, changeable, and lacks any rationale: all the more *vital* that submission be swift, willing and cheerful!


The main method of enforcing scientific prohibition is 'defunding' - which can be done covertly by peer review on the pretext of 'scientific standards'. Also there is the failure to allocate award jobs, promotions, publications, memberships and prizes to those whose topic and/ or views transgress the accepted boundaries.

After all, any job application, any paper, any grant request can be rejected on quasi-plausible grounds.

Many of the greatest scientists have been rejected from jobs, many of the greatest ideas in science have been rejected by peer review, many of the major breakthroughs in science we turned down for grants - all on the grounds that they 'weren't good enough'.

Modern scientific evaluations equate lack of funding with illegitimacy – so defunded science is not merely ignorable science but *bad science*. That which is rejected by peer review is not merely unfashionable or mistaken science but *bad science*. Work done by people outside the peer review cartel is intrinsically *bad science* whenever and to whatever extent it conflicts with the intrinsically authoritative views of the power brokers.

It's an easy sophomoric trick of the half-educated. There has never been a paper in the history of medicine which could not be torn to shreds by a zealot with a Masters degree in epidemiology. The evaluation procedures are over-inclusively negative. The evaluation procedures always imply rejection. The question is merely when to apply the evaluation procedures, and when quietly to set them aside…

Sheltering coercive consensus behind the defense of ‘standards’, mainstream power-brokers and their apologists for prohibition can continue to advocate libertarian ideals.

Craven conformism masquerades as idealism.

And the potentially subverting self-knowledge of moral bankruptcy is deferred for yet another day…

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Mainstream medical research: trivial science and useless medicine

Scientists generally assert their right to study anything they want-to study ('blue skies') as contrasted with the subject matter or direction research being dictated by government, corporations and other organizations.

Yet over the past few decades scientists have tamely allowed the subject matter and direction of their research to be dictated by the funders of science and the peer review cartel who apply funding criteria.

Worse than this, scientists have colluded with evaluation criteria which measure inputs rather than outputs, so that for career purposes externally-funded science is seen as intrinsically superior to unfunded or self-funded science. Well funded pseudo-science is privileged infinitely above unfunded real science (because unfunded science is discounted altogether, or sometimes negatively - as evidence of un-seriousness or disloyalty or misplaced effort).

So we have ended-up the worst of both worlds: the uselessness of arbitrary subject matter and the dullness of merely applied science.

My prime exhibit is mainstream medical research which is useless in the sense that it (almost) never discovers anything of medical/ clinical value (i.e. nothing useful in diagnosing or treating illnesses) - but it is plodding, incremental and organized on an industrial scale just like the most mundane industrial or military R&D.

Mainstream medical science is, in effect, R&D applied to useless and trivial (and dishonest) pseudo-medical subjects.

But IF medical research was motivated by the genuine interests of either the scientists who do it (i.e. amateur science) or by the wants and needs of patients (i.e. clinical science - usually done by clinicians) - then it might stand some chance of making (either) significant jumps in progress of science or of medicine (or both).

As it is, mainstream medical research is at the same time trivial science and useless medicine.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Motivation - the key to science?

While wanting to know the truth does not mean that you will find it; on the other hand, if scientists are not even *trying* to discover the truth - then the truth will not be discovered.

That is the current situation.

'Truth' can be defined as 'underlying reality’. Science is not the only way of discovering truth (for example, philosophy is also about discovering truth - science being in its origin a sub-class of philosophy) - but unless an activity is trying to discover underlying reality, then it certainly cannot be science.

But what motivates someone to want to discover the truth about something?

The great scientists are all very strongly motivated to ‘want to know’ – and this drives them to put in great efforts, and keeps them at their task for decades, in many instances. Why they should be interested in one thing rather than another remains a mystery – but what is clear is that this interest cannot be dictated but arises from within.

Crick commented that you should research that which you gossip about, Watson commented that you should avoid subjects which bore you - - their point being that science is so difficult, that when motivation is deficient then problems will not get solved. Motivation needs all the help it can get.

Seth Roberts, in his superb new article (which happened to be the last paper I accepted for publication in Medical Hypotheses before I was sacked) makes the important point that one motivation to discover something useful in medicine is when you yourself suffer from a problem -

Seth does self-experimentation on problems which he suffers - such as early morning awakening, or putting on too much weight (he is most famous for the Shangri-La diet). He has made several probable breakthroughs working alone and over a relatively short period; and one of the reasons is probably that he really wanted answers, and was not satisfied with answers unless they really made a significant difference.

By contrast, 95 percent (at least!) of professional scientists are not interested in the truth but are doing science for quite other reasons to do with 'career' - things like money, status, security, sociability, lifestyle, fame, to attract women or whatever.

The assumption in modern science is that professional researchers should properly be motivated by career incentives such as appointments, pay and promotion – and not by their intrinsic interest in a problem – certainly not by having a personal stake in finding an answer – such a being a sufferer. Indeed, such factors are portrayed as introducing bias/ damaging impartiality. The modern scientist is supposed to be a docile and obedient bureaucrat – switching ‘interests’ and tasks as required by the changing (or unchanging) imperatives of funding, the fashions of research and the orders of his master.

What determines a modern scientist’s choice of topic, of problem? Essentially it is peer review – the modern scientist is supposed to do whatever work that the cartel of peer-review-dominating scientists decide he should do.

This will almost certainly involve working as a team member for one or more of the peer review cartel scientists; doing some kind of allocated micro-specialized task of no meaning or intrinsic interest – but one which contributes to the overall project being managed by the peer review cartel member. Of course the funders and grant awarders have the major role in what science gets done, but nowadays the allocation of funding has long since been captured by the peer review cartel.

Most importantly, the peer review cartel has captured the ability to define success in solving scientific problems: they simply agree that the problem has been solved! Since peer review is now regarded as the gold standard of science, if the peer review cartel announces that a problem has been solved, then that problem has been solved.

(This is euphemistically termed hype or spin.)

To what does the modern scientist aspire? He aspires to become a member of the peer review cartel. In other words, he aspires to become a bureaucrat, a manager, a ‘politician’.

Is the peer review cartel member a scientist as well? Sometimes (not always) he used-to be – but the answer is essentially: no. Because being a modern high level bureaucrat, manager or politician is incompatible with truthfulness, and dishonesty is incompatible with science.

The good news is that when real science is restored (lets be optimistic!) then its practitioners will again be motivated to discover true and useful things – because science will no longer be a career it will be colonized almost-exclusively by those with a genuine interest in finding real world answers.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Micro-specialization and the infinite perpetuation of error

Scientific specialization is generally supposed to benefit the precision and validity of knowledge within specializations, but at the cost of these specializations becoming more narrow, and loss of integration between specializations.

In other words, as specialization proceeds, people supposedly know more and more about less and less - the benefit being presumed to be more knowledge in each domain, the cost that nobody has a general understanding.

However, I think the supposed benefit is actually not true. People do not really know more – often they know nothing at all or everything they know is wrong because undercut by fundamental errors.

Probably the benefits of specialization really do apply to the early stages of gross specialization such as the increase of scientific career differentiation in the early 20th century - the era when there was a division of university science degrees into Physics, Chemistry and Biology - then later a further modest subdivision of each of these into two or three.

But since the 1960s scientific specialization has now gone far beyond this point, and the process is now almost wholly disadvantageous. We are now in an era of micro-specialization, with dozens of subdivisions within sciences.

Part of this is simply the low average and peak level of ability, motivation and honesty in most branches of modern science. The number of scientists has increased by more than an order of magnitude – clearly this has an effect. Scientific training and conditions have become prolonged and dull and collectivist – deterring creative and self-motivated people. And these have happened in an era when the smartest kids tended not to gravitate to science, as they did in the early 20th century, but instead to professions such as medicine and law.

However there is a more basic and insoluble problem about micro-specialization. This is that micro-specialization is about micro-validation – which can neither detect nor correct gross errors in its basic suppositions.

In my experience, this is the case for many scientific specialties:

1. Epidemiologists are fixated on statistical issues and cannot detect major errors in their presuppositions because they do not regard individual patient data as valid nor do they regard sciences such as physiology and pharmacology as relevant. Hence they do not understand why statistical knowledge cannot replace biological and medical knowledge, nor why the average of 20 000 crudely measured randomized trial patients is not a substitute for the knowledgeable and careful study of individual patients. Since epidemiology emerged as a separate specialty, it has made no significant contribution to medicine but has led to many errors and false emphases. (All this is compounded by the dominant left-wing political agenda of almost all epidemiologists.)

2. Climate change scientists are fixated on fitting computer models to retrospective data sets, and cannot recognize that retrofitted models have zero intrinsic predictive validity. The validity of a model comes from the prediction of future events, from consistency with other sciences relevant to the components of the model, and from consistency with independent data not included in the retrofitting. Mainstream climate change scientists fail to notice that complex computer modelling has been of very little predictive or analytic value in other areas of science (macroeconomics, for instance). They don't even have a coherent understanding of the key concept of global temperature – if they did have a coherent concept of global temperature, they would realize that it is a _straightforward_ matter to detect changes in global temperature – since with proper controls every point on the globe would experience such changes. If the proper controls are not known, however, then global temperature simply cannot be measured; in which case climate scientists should either work out the necessary controls, or else shut-up.

3. Functional brain imaging involves the truly bizarre practice of averaging of synaptic events: with a temporal resolution of functional imaging methods typically averaging tens to hundreds of action potentials and a spatial resolution averaging tens to hundreds of millions of synapses. There may also be multiple averaging and subtraction of repeated tasks. What this all means at the end of some billions of averaged instances is anybody's guess - almost certainly it is un-interpretable (just consider what it would mean to average _any_ biological activity in this kind of fashion!). Yet this stuff is the basis for the major branch of neuroscience which for three decades has been the major non-genetic branch of biological/ medical science - at the cost of who knows how many billions of pounds and man-hours. And at the end of the day, the contribution of functional brain imaging to biological science and medicine has been - roughly - none-at-all.

In other words, in the world of micro-specialization the each specialist’s attention is focused on technical minutiae and the application of conventional proxy measures and operational definitions. These agreed-practices are used in micro-specialities for no better reason than 'everybody else' does the same and (lacking any real validity to their activities) there must be some kind of arbitrary ‘standard’ against which people are judged. ('Everybody else' here means the dominant Big Science researchers who dominate peer review (appointments, promotions, grants, publications etc.) in that micro-speciality.)

Micro-specialists cannot even understand what has happened when there are fatal objections and comprehensive refutations of their standard paradigms which originate from adjacent areas of science.

In a nutshell, micros-specialization allows a situation to develop where the whole of a vast area of science is bogus; and for this reality to be intrinsically and permanently invisible and incomprehensible to the participants in that science.

If we then combine this fact with the notion that only micro-specialists are competent to evaluate the domain of their micro-speciality - then we have a situation of intractable error.

Which situation is precisely what we do have. Vast scientific enterprises have consumed vast resources without yielding any substantive progress, and the phenomenon continues for time-spans of several human generations, and there is no end in sight (short of the collapse of science-as-a-whole).

According to the analysts of classical science, science was supposed to be uniquely self-correcting - in practice, now, thanks in part o micros-specialization, it is not self-correcting at all. Either what we call science nowadays is not 'real science' or else real science has mutated into something which is a mechanism for infinite perpetuation of error.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

'Medieval science' - rediscovered and improved

Although I was 'brought up' on the religion of science, and retain great respect for philosophers such as Jacob Bronowski and Karl Popper, and for sociologists such as Thos. Merton, David L Hull and John Ziman; I have come to believe that this 'classic' science (the kind which prevailed from the mid-19th - mid-20th century in the UK and Western Europe) - in other words that activity which these authors described and analyzed - was 'merely' a transitional state.

In short: classic science was highly successful, but contained the seeds of its own destruction because the very processes that led to classic science would, when continued (and they could not be stopped) also destroy it.

(As so often, that which is beneficial in the short term is fatal in the longer term.)

Specifically, this transitional state of classic science was an early phase of professional science, which came between what might be called medieval science and modern science (which is not real science at all - but merely a generic bureaucratic organization which happened to have evolved from classic science). But classic science was never a steady state, and never reproduced itself; but was continually evolving by increasing growth, specialization and professionalization/ bureaucratization.

But classic Mertonian/ Popperian science was never stable - each generation of scientists had a distinctly different experience than the generation before due to progressive increasing growth, specialization and professionalization/ bureaucratization.

And indeed Classic science was not the kind of science which led to the industrial revolution and the ‘modern world’; the modern world was a consequence of causes which came before modernity. The modern world is a consequence of medieval science. So, the pre-modern forms of science were real science, and had real consequences.

What I mean is that medieval science was an activity which was so diffuse and disorganized that we do not even recognize it as science – yet it was this kind of science which led to the process of societal transformation that is only recognized by historians as becoming visible from the 17th century (e.g the founding of the Royal Society in 1660). But the emergence of classic science was merely the point at which change become so visible that it could not be ignored.

Since modernity it is therefore possible that science has been unravelling even as it expanded – i.e. that the processes of growth, specialization and professionalization/ bureaucratization were also subverting themselves until the point (which we have passed) where the damage due to growth, specialization and professionalization/ bureaucratization outstripped the benefit.

This is good news, I think.

Much of the elaborate and expensive paraphernalia of science - which we mistakenly perceive to be vital – may in fact be mostly a late and parasitic development. Effective science can be, has been, much simpler and cheaper.

When we consider science as including the medieval era prior to classic science, then it becomes clear that there is no distinctive methodology of science. Looking across the span of centuries it looks like the process of doing science cannot really be defined more specifically than saying that it is a social and multigenerational activity characterized by truth-seeking.

I would further suggest that science is usually attempting to solve a problem – or to find a better solution to a problem than the existing one (problem solving per se is not science, but science is a kind of problem solving).

The main physical (rather than political) constraint on science in the past was probably the slowness and unreliability of communication and records. This made science extremely slow to advance. Nonetheless, these advances were significant and led to the modern world.

The encouraging interpretation is therefore that even when modern professional ‘science’ collapses a new version of medieval science should easily be able to replace it, because of the already-available improvements in the speed, accuracy and durability of communications.

In other words, a re-animated ‘medieval science’ (amateur, unspecialized, individualistic, self-organized) plus modern communications probably equals something pretty good, by world historical standards - probably not so good as the brilliant but unstable phase of 'classic science', but better than 'modern science'.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Master and 'prentice'

Probably the most important bit of work I did as a scientist was the malaise theory of depression - .

I worked on this intermittently for nearly 20 years from about 1980 when I first began to study psychiatry. My motivation was trying to understand how a mood state could apparently be cured by medication.

From what I was being told, it seemed as if 'antidepressants' were supposed to normalize mood while leaving the rest of the mind unchanged. Of course, this isn't really true, but that was what I was trying to understand initially. Or, to put it another way, I was trying to understand what was 'an antidepressant' - since none of the standard explanations made any sense at all.

So, how did I 'solve' this problem (solve at least to my own satisfaction, that is!). Part of it was 'phenomenology' (i.e. mental self observation) - especially to observe my own mood states in response to various illnesses (such as colds and flu) and in response to various medications (including some which I was taking for migraine).

But the best answer is that I did not really solve it myself, but only when I had subordinated my investigations to the work of two great scientists - two 'Masters': the Irish psychiatrist David Healy and the Portugese neuroscientist Antonio R Damasio.

This apprenticeship was almost entirely via the written world - and involved reading, thinking-about and re-reading (and thinking about and re-re-reading some more) key passages from key works of these two scientists. That is accepting these men as my mentors and discerning guides to the vast (and mostly wrong) literature of Psychiatry and Neuroscience.

The lesson that I draw from my experience is that real science (which is both rare and slow) is done and passed-on by a social groups comprising a handful of great scientists and a still small but somewhat larger number of 'disciples' who learn and apply their insights and serve to amplify their impact.

But even the great scientists have themselves mostly served as apprentices to other great scientists (as has often been documented - e.g. by Harriet Zuckerman in Scientific Elite).

So, when thinking about the social structure of real science, it would seem that real scientific work is done (slowly, over a time frame of a few decades) by small groups that are driven by Masters who make the breakthroughs; plus a larger number of 'prentices who learn discernment from the Masters ('discernment' - i.e. the correct making of evaluations - being probably more important than techniques or specific information).

But disciples by themselves are not capable of making breakthroughs, but only capable of incremental extensions or combinations of Master work.

And it is best if the Master can be primarily responsible for training the next generation Master/s to carry on the baton of real science. Disciples can - at best - only train-up more 'prentices with the humility to seek and serve a Master.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Doing science after the death of real science

Science is now, basically, dead (my direct experience of science is inevitably partial - but the same mechanisms seems to have been at work everywhere; even outside of medicine in the humanities some of which I know reasonably well - and the social sciences were essentially corrupt from the word go).

What we think of as science is now merely a branch of the bureaucracy. It would, indeed it does, function perfectly well without doing any useful and valid science at all.

Indeed, modern professional science functions perfectly well while, in fact, *destroying* useful and valid science and replacing it with either rubbish or actively harmful stuff (this is very clear in psychiatry).

I find that I now cannot trust the medical research literature _at all_. I trust a few individual individuals but I do not trust journals, not fields, not funding agencies, not scholarly societies (like the Royal Society, universities, or the NAS) not citations, not prizes (Nobel etc) - in my opinion, none of these are trustworthy indices of scientific validity - not even 'on average'.

The system is *so* corrupt that finding useful and valid science (and, of course, there is some) is like finding a needle in a haystack.

The vast bulk of published work is either hyped triviality (which is time wasting at best), or dishonest in a range of ways from actual invention of data down to deliberately selective publication, or else incompetent in the worst sense - the sense that the researchers lack knowledge, experience and even interest in the problems which they are pretending to solve.

So, what should a person do who wants to do real science in an area? - if (as I think its probably the case) they need to _ignore_ the mainstream published literature as doing more harm than good.

Essentially it is a matter of going back to pre-professional science, and trying to recreate trust based interpersonal networks ('invisible colleges') of truthful, dedicated amateurs; and accepting that the pace of science will be *slow*.

I've been reading Erwin Chargaff lately, and he made clear that the pace of science really is slow. I mean with significant increments coming at gaps of several years - something like one step a decade or so, if you are lucky. And if 'science' seems fast, then that is because it is not science!

This is why science is destroyed by professionalism and its vast expansion - there are too few steps of progress, and too few people ever make these steps. Most 'scientists' (nowadays in excess of 99 percent of them) - if judged correctly - are complete and utter failures, or indeed saboteurs!

So science inevitably ought to be done as a serious hobby/ pastime paid for by some other economic activity (which has usually teaching, but was often medicine up to the early 20th century, and before that being a priest).

Why should anyone take any notice of these putative small and self selected groups of hobby-scientists? Well, presumably if they produce useful results (useful as judged by common sense criteria - like relieving pain or reversing the predictable natural history of a disease), and if the members of the group are honest and trustworthy. But whether this will happen depends on much else - their work may be swamped by public relations.

So, groups of practitioners are best able to function as amateur scientists, since they can implement their own findings, with a chance that their effectivceness might be noticed. And in the past groups of practicing physicians would function as the scientists for their area of interest.

This seems the best model I can think of for those wanting to do science. But science is intrinsically a social activity, not an individual activity. So if you cannot find or create a group that you can trust (and whose competence you trust) - then you cannot do real science.